SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains spoilers for “Linda Vista.”
Tracy Letts and Dick Wheeler are two very different people. The former is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright, a lauded actor and a talent whose ambidextrous knack for acting and writing has produced “August: Osage County” and a slew of other highly successful plays. The latter is a fictional 50-year-old man, falling off the high cliffs of purposeless masculinity, possessed by an unsuccessful stoicism that’s rotted into bitter, frustrated and desperate hopelessness for the second half of his life — and the protagonist of Letts’ new Broadway comedy-drama, “Linda Vista.”
But, leaning over the bar at The Ribbon on 44th street in New York City Thursday evening, down the street from the Helen Hayes Theatre where “Linda Vista” had just opened on Broadway, Tracy Letts brought the two men closer together and revealed, somewhat pensively, why “Linda Vista” came to be.
“It’s probably something about being in my middle-age,” he said, darkly. “I started the play when I was 50. I’m 54 now, and 50 is kind of a profound moment, when you’ve got enough of your life and experiences behind you and enough of you ahead, but the end is out there. The end is more perceivable. And there’s something about being at that place in your life — I don’t think it’s unnatural to want to take stock, to think about what makes me, me,” he considered as his wife, award-winning actress Carrie Coon, joined him at his side. “I think Wheeler is in some ways a version of a guy I might have turned out to be had I not made some good decisions in life. So, when you ask about autobiography, it’s kind of like alternate-universe autobiography.”
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Wheeler, played on Broadway by Ian Barford, a longtime collaborator of Letts’ who also starred in “August: Osage County,” is a divorcee, an absent father, and a haphazard womanizer bent on mining his own self-worth from shallow intimacy. Flailing in the midst of a mid-life crisis, Wheeler is a complicated character who, despite a tragic inability to see beyond himself, genuinely wants to do right by those around him. That incongruity is what interested Letts.
“It’s a play about seeing,” he said, still leaning over the bar a few steps from the after-party red carpet. “It’s about how we see others and how we see ourselves. A lot of it has to do with perception. Our vision gets blurred by our experience, our defenses and hurt. I mean, the truth is that when I started writing the character, there was some talk about Wheeler’s Trump jokes, how he jokes about and disparages Trump. For me, in the early going, it was a moment of considering myself and some of my own flaws, thinking about the way I feel about my view on politics, my good, lefty liberal, staunch liberal values,” he considered.
“And I feel absolutely correct and right and proper in those things and thoughts, and yet personally I’ve often in my life conducted myself in a way that’s not ethical, not correct, especially in matters of love. I’ve lied; I’ve cheated. I’ve done all that stuff. And so that dichotomy was interesting for me, the idea of a guy who talks a big game about integrity and yet isn’t necessarily living that good game,” Letts continued. “Not because he’s a bad person or just a point-blank hypocrite, but because of perception. We get lost; we get lost as people.”
Yet, it’s not immediately evident why a play about a middle-aged, straight white man with an identity crisis is a worthy sell for Broadway, however deep Letts’ observations about a flawed modern masculinity may be. To counterbalance Wheeler is a cast of well-adjusted, self-respecting, mature, though equally flawed, women. For Cora Vander Broek, who plays Wheeler’s girlfriend Jules, that equity is what elevates “Linda Vista” to a meaningful conversation about sex and gender.
“Tracy’s written every character in a very well-rounded way,” she told Variety on the red carpet. “It’s not like we’re angelic women who come down and teach the bad man, and I think that’s important to me right now, too. Especially in a time when men and women are so polarized, it’s important that ‘Linda Vista’ is a play about very real people trying to love, trying to move forward, trying to forgive or trying to let go,” she said. “And so, along with having those really challenging moments that speak to men and our country right now, that bridging is really important.”
At the end of the play, Wheeler, having been unfaithful, returns to apologize to Broek’s character, offering a self-serving, though vulnerable monologue about his own tragic flaws that’s unconvincing to Jules. She doesn’t take him back.
“In a romantic comedy, that’s when people get back together,” said Coon, Letts having left her side by the bar and joined the party. “In reality, I know a lot of women who’ve taken back Wheelers, and I know a lot of women who would’ve preferred that they had that conversation instead, and so it’s a lovely fantasy to see that acted out on stage. Because of who’s in control of the narrative, it often goes the other way, and I actually find the play very feminist and empowering in its perspective,” she said, eyeing the playwright across the room. “Yes, he is writing out of his own experiences; he’s reflecting on how he’s conducted himself and how men behave.”